Should I Submit My ACT Scores to Test Optional Schools?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges adopted test-optional policies, allowing students to choose whether to submit standardized test scores like the ACT. As the pandemic has waned at the same time concerning data has emerged about the upshot of test optional admissions, some elite schools have started to require scores again. But there are still hundreds of colleges that let you choose whether to submit your ACT scores, which begs the obvious question: Should you?

In general, you should submit your ACT score to a test-optional school if it’s above the 75th percentile for the previous year’s incoming class. In certain scenarios, you should consider submitting a score between the 50th and 75th percentile.

A pencil-and-paper standardized test.

What Does Test Optional Really Mean?

Test optional policies mean you are not required to submit standardized test scores with your college application. While you have the choice not to include your ACT or SAT score to a test-optional school, sending them can still impact your application — sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. If your scores are strong, particularly when compared to a typical student who matriculated at a school, they can make your application stronger. But if they are low compared to the average scores at your chosen school, they can hurt your chances of getting in. So it’s important to understand the competitive score range of any school you’re seriously considering.

Test optional policies were created to give students more control over their applications. Schools that have adopted this approach have largely done so to increase diversity by allowing students from disadvantaged backgrounds to present themselves in the best possible light, without being automatically disadvantaged by a single test score. Students from poorer communities, the thinking goes, often lack the resources that help more affluent students achieve high ACT and SAT scores, such as expensive test prep materials and classes.

Test Optional vs. Test Blind

Understanding the difference between test optional and test blind is important. Test optional schools do not require you to submit standardized test scores, but they will consider them if you choose to send them. Test blind schools, on the other hand, will not look at standardized test scores at all, even if you submit them. Among the most well-known schools that have adopted test-blind policies are those in the University of California system, such as UCLA and UC-Berkeley. Knowing a school’s policy helps you decide whether you could benefit by submitting your scores.

Test blind policies are less common but offer additional advantages for students who feel that standardized tests do not accurately reflect their academic potential. Under these policies, all students are evaluated solely on other factors such as their coursework, essays, recommendations, and extracurricular involvement.

Advantages of Test Optional Admissions

Test optional admissions have helped countless students get into colleges that otherwise would have been out of reach. The main advantage to this policy is that if your test scores don’t stack up well against your competition for a particular school, you can leave them out, thereby eliminating a major disadvantage in your application. In turn, you’re able to highlight other strengths in your application, like academic performance or demonstrated leadership. Applying test-optional also reduces the stress and financial burden of taking the ACT and SAT (often multiple times).

Test-optional policies can also reduce barriers for students who might have had limited access to test preparation resources or who come from educational backgrounds that do not emphasize standardized testing. This can help level the playing field and open up competition for admission to prestigious schools to a broader group of students.

Student holding an acceptance letter.

Disadvantages of Test Optional Admissions

Test optional admissions have presented a few disadvantages as well, especially for students with high ACT or SAT scores. These students now face a much higher volume of competition for slots at elite schools, as other applicants are not filtered out by lower test scores the way they were when nearly all schools were test-required. In recent years, students admitted to rigorous schools without test scores have faced academic struggles at much higher rates than students who submit scores. This challenge has prompted some professors and schools to reconsider the accepted-of-late wisdom that standardized test scores do not predict success in college.

Another disadvantage is that test-optional policies have led to much greater uncertainty in the admissions process. With more students applying to more schools, including ones they would previously have considered out of reach, admissions outcomes have become far less predictable, making it harder for students to gauge their chances of acceptance at a given school.

Should I Submit the SAT, the ACT, or Both?

When deciding whether to submit the ACT, SAT, or both, consider each score in the context of your target school’s most recently matriculated freshman class. You can easily find this data if the school publishes a common data set, which most reputable schools do. To find a particular school’s common data set, simply Google the name of the school plus the phrase common data set. For example, “Yale common data set.” The first result that pops up is usually a link to either the data set itself or the school’s Institutional Research page, which should contain links to current and previous data sets (assuming the school publishes them).

The common data set is broken into several sections, each focusing on a specific type of data. You’re looking for section C, which contains all the admissions data for the most recent incoming class, including ACT and SAT midranges (the 25th to 75th percentile) as well as the percentage of students who submitted scores. At some schools, such as Trinity College in Hartford, the percentage is extremely low, as most students are admitted test optional. At other schools like the University of Florida where the ACT or SAT is still required, the percentage is obviously much higher — by rule, the percentage who submit the ACT and SAT must total at least 100 at a test-required school. This percentage can play a role in the decision of whether to submit your ACT score. If the data shows that most people who get in submit scores, it can be a signal that the school prefers students who submit, even if it’s nominally test optional.

But the main factor that determines whether you should submit is how your score ranks among the most recent incoming class at the school where you’re applying. In general, you should almost always submit your score if it’s above the 75th percentile. For instance, if the ACT midrange for the school is 27-32 and you got a 34, definitely submit. If your score falls between the 50th and 75th percentile (in the current example, say a 30), think about the other strengths in your application.

Do you have an extremely high GPA with amazing rigor? Are you ranked at the top of your class (assuming your school submits class rank, which many don’t)? Are you the class president or hold other bona fide leadership positions? Are you a first-generation college student? If you checked yes to more than one of those boxes, you might consider going test-optional even if your ACT score is in the middle of the school’s bell curve. A strong application might be diluted by a middle-of-the-road test score. On the other hand, if you feel your application is unremarkable or simply lacks that one thing that makes it “pop,” a decent test score, meaning one that is at least at or above the average for the target school, might boost your chances.

Will Schools Assume I Got a Low ACT Score if I Go Test Optional?

It’s hard to say what a particular admissions officer might think if you don’t submit your ACT score, or if they’ll even give it much thought at all. What’s important is how it affects your application. Generally, not submitting your score gives you a better shot if it’s below the 50th percentile for the school to which you’re applying. If your score is higher, especially above the 75th percentile, it’s almost always beneficial to include it.

For scores between these ranges, the decision can be nuanced. It largely depends on the strength of the rest of your application as well as the school to which you’re applying.

It has become politically correct these days for schools to claim to conduct holistic reviews, meaning they focus on the entirety of your application rather than just crunching the quantifiable metrics such as your GPA, class rank and test scores. A true holistic review considers the strengths you demonstrate through coursework, essays, leadership positions, and extracurricular achievements, as well as the obstacles and hardships you’ve overcome.

That said, the degree to which applications are actually reviewed this way rather than with a numbers-first focus varies from institution to institution.

College applications can get stressful and overwhelming fast!

What Else Should I Know About Test Optional Admissions?

The introduction of test-optional admissions has certainly made the college application process more chaotic and unpredictable. With these policies, the traditional metrics of reaches, targets, and safeties have become blurred. In response to this shifting dynamic, it has become critical to apply to a broader spectrum of schools to ensure you maximize your opportunities and end up at the best fit. You should craft every application to highlight your greatest strengths in the context of the particular school. In some cases, that could mean submitting your ACT score; in others, it might be better to leave them out and focus on other things you’ve accomplished.

The shift toward more holistic admissions has its benefits, such as increasing diversity on campus and allowing students to be seen as more than just their ACT score. However, it also makes it more critical to carefully curate the other areas of your application. Writing a compelling essay and displaying a robust profile of extracurricular activities and leadership positions is now more important than ever.

Applying to a wider array of schools, including several with high acceptance rates or rolling admissions calendars that give you an answer early in the process, can help manage the unpredictability inherent in this system. Tools like the Common Application make this strategy more manageable, as they help you streamline the process of applying to multiple schools.

Final Thoughts

Remember, the overarching goal of a college application is to present yourself in the best possible light. This means showcasing your achievements, potential, and fit for each school to which you hope to be accepted. By understanding the nuances of test-optional admissions and using your knowledge to plan your application components, you can navigate this evolving landscape with confidence.

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